Humans are wondrously diverse. We differ by age, gender identity, race, sexual orientation, skin color, primary language, education, wealth, family make-up, neurological wiring, health, fitness level, geographic origin, religious affiliation, culture, and more. Our interests and hobbies vary, as do our political beliefs and the causes we support.

We differ in how we think, how we interact with others, how we like to express ourselves. We have varied intelligences, and skills, and weaknesses. We work in different jobs (sometimes even though we share a job title with others), on different teams, and in different industries.

We have differences in values, purpose, motivations. And our dreams for the future are unique as well.

The workplace is not a one-size-fits-all kind of place. And there is most assuredly no one best way to develop people, no one perfect path to building skills or preparing people for new roles.

Start with empathy

The moves you make to support the development of your direct reports must be uniquely suited to each individual, tailored for their goals, and context, and preferences, and available opportunities. Like all good design, the design of a learning plan begins with deep empathy for the people you are trying to serve.

Advocates of design thinking use a tool called empathy mapping to document what they have learned about the people whose needs they are trying to address. An empathy map generally describes what people are thinking, feeling, and noticing from their perspective – it’s an attempt to capture what we know about their internal point of view, their goals, and their pain points. In order to document an empathy map, you first have to do the work to get inside other people’s heads a bit.

Before you start to plan their development, get to know your people, not as cogs in a finely tuned productive team, but as individuals, each unique. Knowing people comes with time, but you can also deliberately develop your relationships through conversation and social activities. It can be a real treat to get to know people, and it also puts you in a position to better customize your development approach.

What needs customization

Development moves. Once you know people and their context well, you can imagine the moves you can make with them to promote their development in alignment with agreed goals. That’s why moves that clarify are usually the starting place for development planning. The set of moves you engage beyond that point are then unique to each individual’s goals and situation. There are several other areas that require a customized approach as well.

Time for learning. One of the most important things we can do to support learning is to make time available for learning activities. How you do that depends on that person’s job, the rhythm of their work, the kinds of activities you are making room for, and individual preferences. Don’t guess – talk with employees about their time challenges related to development and carve out time together. Make sure you don’t attempt moves without considering needed time commitments.

Barrier mitigation. Lack of available time is not the only issue employees encounter. As you get to know people better, you’ll learn about other stumbling blocks that you may be able to move out of the way or cut down to size. Perhaps they don’t have a good role model, or funds for an external developmental event, or the right space or equipment to engage in developmental activities – see what you can do to identify and eliminate any obstacles.

Recognition for progress. How you recognize and reward people for demonstrating advanced knowledge and skill is also person-specific. Some welcome a big fuss and a visible reward, while others prefer a quiet word and demonstrated interest in their learning projects. Some people hope to move on to new challenges and roles in light of their strengthened skill set while others will relish being seen as the expert in their current job. Some people appreciate a trophy-like memento of achievement, while others might appreciate the gift of a topical book. Match the reward and recognition to the person rather than worrying that you give the same kinds of rewards to everyone. (However, be careful about substantial differences in monetary value of rewards.)

One size fits one

Part of what makes your developmental leadership role challenging is the fact that the development goals and activities for each employee can differ widely. Making each plan the right fit for the individual is worth the effort, though: employees who feel they are developing in their roles are better able to contribute, and more likely to stay.

To track your customizations, consider keeping a developmental journal for each of your employees, so you have ongoing notes of goals, conversations, activities, and results. And be sure to meet regularly one-on-one with employees to encourage progress – and to check to see if learning priorities are changing.

The bottom line is that developing others is an awesome responsibility that requires a personal touch. The fact that we are all different in so many ways may make development a customization challenge, but it also makes our interactions richer and increases the capacity of what we can accomplish together.

“Our inner strengths, experiences, and truths cannot be lost, destroyed, or taken away. Every person has an inborn worth and can contribute to the human community. We all can treat one another with dignity and respect, provide opportunities to grow toward our fullest lives and help one another discover and develop our unique gifts. We each deserve this and we all can extend it to others.” ~ Mark Twain

This post is part of a series exploring the moves leaders can make to promote development of their teams and employees. Check out the entire developing people series. And please get in touch if I can help you to aquaint your leadership team with these moves and the details of practices that ensure they are effective. I can offer a workshop and other learning materials on the subject.